Of all the reasons people are given for their lower back pain, few are as common as core weakness.
Whether it’s from doctors, trainers, therapists or loved ones, this explanation is so standard that people rarely dispute it. In addition, a quick internet search for “exercises for low back pain” will yield dozens of options targeting the core.
While this notion seems to make intuitive sense, is it true?
A way to find out is to determine the rate of low back pain in those deemed to have strong cores and compare to those who don’t. One such study of over 300 people aimed to do just that. It looked at the prevalence of low back pain in elite athletes and compared it with controls. Through their training, elite athletes will likely have stronger cores than the general population. However, the study found no difference. Other articles have similar results.
Also, legendary golfer Tiger Woods, no stranger to the gym or core stability, has undergone five back surgeries. He is a great example showing that having a strong core doesn’t necessarily prevent or fix lower back pain.
Another study involving postpartum women also provides insight into this question. We know that pregnancy can induce severe core weakness through its effect on the abdominal wall muscles. That weakness has been shown to persist for up to six weeks following delivery until the muscles return to their standard length.
If the hypothesis of core weakness causing low-back pain was correct, you would expect a high rate of low back pain for postpartum women during this time.
However, the pain of 650 of the 869 women spontaneously resolved within two weeks of giving birth. Two weeks is well before the expected timeframe for these elongated abdominal muscles to shorten and regain their typical core
If core weakness was a common cause of low back pain, recovery likely wouldn’t have occurred in 75% of those postpartum women while their core was still very weak.
Now all of that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in strengthening your core. It is important to strengthen every muscle in the body, including those that make up the core. But is core weakness a common reason for low back pain? That connection hasn’t been proved.
Dr. Jordan Duncan is from Kitsap County and writes a monthly online health column for Kitsap News Group. He is the owner of Silverdale Sport & Spine.